Grace – freely enfolded in God’s love

Grace – freely enfolded in God’s love

Grace – freely enfolded in God’s love

James Tolhurst 

We use the word grace (χάριϛ/charis/ from which charisma comes) – Latin gratia– to express charm and beauty, but also generosity and the kindness of the e use the word grace (χάριϛ/charis/ from which charisma comes) – Latin gratia giver (‘grace and favour residences’). When we apply it to God, it speaks of his mercy and goodness: “a God of tenderness and of grace, slow to anger and rich in mercy” (Ex. 34:6). That grace would fow into individuals such as Noah who found favour with him (Gen. 6:8) for grace is part of God’s nature – which theologians say is difusive of himself: it is part of his being to give himself to his creation, and the response to the gift is gratitude. The owner of the vineyard replied to those who grumbled that they were being paid the same as those who came at the eleventh hour, “Why be envious because I am generous ? ” (Matt. 20:15). Ultimately it fowed into Mary of Nazareth who was that outpouring of God’s favour, whom the angel Gabriel saluted as ‘full of grace’.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth and read out the words of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”, the congregation wondered at “ the gracious words”. But the cause of their amazement was not about the way he spoke (they were soon to condemn him for his comments about them) but because he spoke the words of grace (χάριτις charitis). They were struck that he had not continued the quotation which goes on to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God (Lk. 4:18; Is. 61:2). Jesus chose to stress that salvation did not come linked with retribution.

We owe much of our understanding of grace to St. Paul who considered himself a recipient of God’s mercy and goodness. He would say “God set me apart and called me by his grace,” (Gal. 1:15) “his grace toward me was not in vain” and “I do not nullify the grace of God” (1 Cor.15:10; Gal. 2:21). He was conscious that our justifcation was out of generosity, “Justifed by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24), and it was all powerful so that “we may fnd grace to help us in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) because “my grace is sufcient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). It was at the heart of all his teaching – “understanding the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6) and it prompted a continuing efort, so that “He should complete among you his gracious work” (2 Cor. 8:6). 

Wilful or woeful

When Newman was studying the history of the early Church he noticed that “the true faith never could come into contact with the heathen philosophies, without exercising its right to arbitrate between them” (Arians p.101). The progress of our understanding of grace bears this out. The Church reacted to the heterodoxy of the 5th century ‘Sicilian Briton’ (Pelagius) and subsequent Semi-Pelagian followers who over-emphasised the power of human will, by asserting the preeminent role of grace. The Council of Carthage in 418 labelled heretical the concept that “if grace were not given, it would be possible but not easy to obey God’s commandments without that grace”. When Martin Luther maintained that “when man fell he is no longer free: and of himself can only sin,” (On Genesis c. 19) the Council of Trent produced its reply in the Decree on Justifcation.

This magisterial text faced what amounts to the direct contrast of Pelagianism which exalted human endeavour and Lutheranism which considered humanity purely passive and grace “like some brilliant cloak of gold thrown over the human corpse by God” (Karl Adam: The Spirit of Catholicism ch.11). The fathers of the Council were careful not to undermine the power of grace while insisting on the free cooperation of human will. It is true that we are not justifed on the basis of works; and without God’s grace he could not take one step towards justice in God’s sight. But God does provide the gift of his grace to those who do all that is within their power, “working both the will and the performance” (Phil. 2:13). In the end, we are urged to “fght the good fght of the faith and win for ourselves the eternal life to which we are called” (1 Tim. 6:12).

God’s will and ours

There remains the deep mystery of divine predestination: “Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son…And those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justifed” (Rom. 8: 28.29). Trent was quick to point out that nobody can ever presume that they are predestined; or even if they consider themselves justifed, that they cannot sin again. But in what does human freedom consist if by our own free will without God’s grace nobody can take one step towards being justifed? Does this amount to Luther’s enslavement of the will or does it give a nod towards Pelagius? What is the interplay between grace and our free will?

Isaiah proclaims “You have wrought for us all our works” (Is. 26:12). St Thomas Aquinas wades into the argument by afrming that “divine causality alone can move man’s will from within, yet leave it free” (I-II q.9 a.6). The grace of God is not a divine – human amalgam but only divine. When the great Origen commented on the incident of Jesus with his apostles in the storm, he says, “The one who reaches the other side, does so because ‘Jesus sails with him’ but he must do all within his power to get there.” The 13 standpoint of Domingo Bañez OP (1528-1604), and his followers is that God foresees all hypothetical future events and premoves the free will to a course of action, calling certain to blessedness and giving them the grace necessary. But Fr. Luis de Molina S.J. (1535-1600) and most of the Jesuits taught that although God calls all to be glorifed, his gift of grace is conditioned by an intermediate knowledge, by which God sees beforehand how individuals freely react to grace and knows infallibly in advance how they will make use of the grace that has been given and elects those who cooperate with grace for eternal glory. Pope Paul V in 1607 decreed that the Banezians could not be accused of Calvinism nor the Molinists of Pelagianism, and therefore both opinions could be held. This is still the case. The way in which God chooses to give grace remains mysterious.

The harvest of good works

Article XI of the Thirty-nine Articles says that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” Trent however says that although justifcation begins with a call from God “which we do not merit,” adds “ we do not sin when we perform good works with a view to an eternal reward.” As Colossians puts it, “Christ, our hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). The very merit we gain is of course due to our cooperation with the gifts of God’s grace, as we say in the collect for the frst Sunday in Advent, “Grant almighty Father, that when Christ comes again we may go out to meet him, bearing the harvest of good works, achieved by your grace.” As Augustine puts it, “God’s goodness to men is such that he wants his gifts to be their merits.”

The Council of Trent also followed its treatment on human cooperation with divine grace (as contrasted with the approach of Protestantism) by explaining the mechanisms involved. Following St Thomas, there is the aspect of grace which is antecedent to sin and which actually sustains us so that we can accept grace, or that which is proceeds our acceptance. There is also that which is sufcient (but which is not accepted) and efcacious (which is); and grace which is habitual insofar as God permanently ofers it to us and it is freely accepted. There is also sanctifying grace which is a permanent condition in those who are justifed. Augustine would say, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”

Jansenism (which turned out to be a Catholic version of Calvinism) rejected the concept of sufcient grace which remains inefcacious through our fault on the grounds that it put humanity in debt to God. It proved to be a stubborn heresy which took three condemnations. Augustine argued that “God works in us even the will to believe and it is always his mercy which forestalls us, but it belongs to the will to answer the divine call or reject it.” Jesus wanted to save Jerusalem and to gather its children together, but they would not respond (Matt. 24:2).

A communication of truth and love

Theologians like to make distinctions, but there are times when their systematisation could almost be described as “questions about words and names” (Ac. 18:15). “It is the will and design of God that produced sanctity in our souls”, says de Caussade. Grace must not be thought of as simply a theological formula because it is nothing less than “a participation in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Piet Fransen would say that grace was “more than anything else, God’s creative, loving way of speaking to each one of us individually in Christ and in the Church”, which introduces the personal element. From another theological angle, Ralph Martin talks about “the ontological modifcation of the human being which enables someone to know and love God in the way in which God loves himself”. It is above all a bestowing of divine friendship. Fr. Holloway puts it succinctly, “A communication by love and truth and power by the radiation of God’s very being.”

Scripture recounts that when Jacob dreamed about the ladder between earth and heaven he woke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16). Jesus recalled Jacob’s vision to Nathaniel, telling him, “You shall see greater things than these…You will see heaven thrown open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn 1:50-51). What we are promised is not just that contact with the divine, but the actual indwelling of the Trinity itself, as Jesus told his apostles, “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23). If the mere sense of the presence of God had such an impact on Jacob, how much greater should be our awareness of the individual efect on us of divine grace? Contact with a sovereign inspires awe (the English sovereign is referred to as ‘the Presence’). But how much greater must it be when we are touched by God. He spares us – as he spared Manoah and his wife – out of consideration for the shock it would be to our system (Jdg. 13:22), but we still need to realise that it is something beyond all earthly wonders. Augustine, speaking of our reception of the Eucharist says, “You shall not change me into yourself as bodily food, but into me you shall be changed” (Confessions 7, 10).

Wisdom passes into holy souls

God wants us to be conformed to the image of his Son by the working of his grace. It is what makes poor human beings into saints. Mrs Holloway was adamant that “all souls who love God truly and sincerely, and do what they know to be his holy will are beautiful in his sight and in the sight of his holy Mother and the angels.” This is the state of grace which seems to get scarce mention, yet the book of Wisdom says “in every generation she [Wisdom] passes into holy souls” (Wis. 7:27). Fr John Lenz, 15 imprisoned in Dachau, would say that it was important “to show those who have crosses of their own to bear in life just what the grace of God can do for those who follow faithfully in the footsteps of Christ the Crucifed”. If you have ever encountered a truly holy person, such as happened to Fr Christopher in his meeting with St Henry Morse in Newgate in 1645, “His face was so lit up with joy that if I had been a heathen or a heretic, the experience of sweetness I then had would have won me to the faith he professed.” Fr Holloway says, “Through grace, both soul and body may thrill in one common ecstasy to the communication of the love of God”. If this is true – “things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him” ( I Cor. 2:9) – it will be the fulflment of the work of grace in this life, which reaches its completion in the next. Please God, it will be our reward to rejoice with the harvest of our works in the presence of the martyrs and saints. At the end of our journey will be the Immaculate Mother of God: “for the heaven he left, he found heaven in thee, and he shone in thy shining, sweet star of the sea”.


Fr. Tolhurst studied theology in Spain at the English College. He needed his time in parish work to put it into practice. He is the General Editor of the Newman Millennium Edition

Faith Magazine

Faith Magazine March - April 2017